Craters of the Moon is less traveled but as fascinating to visit as some of the larger, more popular national parks. Exploring the lava tube caves and walking on the lava fields is other-worldly and absolutely worth a visit! Before visiting the park, we had no idea that there were lava fields on the continental US that you could walk on. The lava flows you see are some of the most recent ones in geologic time, only 2000 years old.
The trails are beautiful, but the real fun at this monument is below the surface. Five lava tube caves are open once the winter snow melts. Be sure to start at the visitors center for current cave conditions, openings, and a permit for your visit. No clothing that has been in any cave for the past 10 years is allowed in any cave in order to stop the spread of white-nose syndrome, a disease that is plaguing the bat population in North America. The caves normally open late-May to early-June, with the highest visitation in summer months. We lucked out and arrived by chance on the day two of the caves opened for the year. There was snow and ice still remaining in portions of the caves that added fun and mystery.
The largest cave on the property, Indian Tunnel, is an example of a lava flow hardening on the outside while still flowing inside. The inside flow eventually gets to its final destination leaving an empty tube cave behind. While Indian Tunnel still remains a cave, you’ll also see examples of lava tubes that have collapsed all around it. At 50 feet wide, 30 feet high, and 800 feet long, Indian Tunnel cave is as simple or complex as you’d like it to be when exploring. The walk to get to the entrance is paved but steep in spots. A sturdy staircase leads down to one open section where the ceiling has long since caved in. Several areas of ceiling have given way, allowing visitors to more through the cave without flashlights. Adventurous explorers (with flashlights) can search the many offshoots and find small areas to climb through. We observed sooth lava ribbons, cinder, and ice that had taken incredible shapes.
The cave was perfect for our family: lots to explore but nowhere to really get lost so we felt safe letting the kids lead the way. The lava rocks were fun to climb on, but sharp and unsteady in places. In our opinion this park is best explored with older kids who can really move around safely on their own. As we discovered it’s not a bad idea to bring band-aids. Long pants and sturdy shoes are a must as well.
Once you pop up from the cave (tricker than the staircase to get in, but easy enough if you are able to climb a little) the path takes you back along the roof and through a lava field. We took our time here and observed the several patterns of lava as well as looking for tubes that have caved in and small tubes we could peek into. Dew Drop Cave was the only other one open when we were there in late May. A much smaller cave but on the way to Indian Tunnel, and definitely worth a stop!
If you aren’t into climbing below ground, Tree Molds Trail is easy and takes you 1 mile out to see where lava flowed through a forest and took the shape of the tree bark it ran over. The imprints can be hard to spot at first, but once you find them they are remarkably visible and all over the place. Spatter Cones Trail is another great one. Short and steep, it takes you up the side of a cone where you can look down into it and imagine hot cinder shooting out. There are two next to the parking area, but before you leave make sure to follow the path to see the incredible crater along North Crater Trail. The view from the trail is stunning! When we were there the wind was incredibly strong so we did not linger but this did not ruin the view.
Craters of the Moon is a must-visit, in our opinion. I felt like we got a really good feel for the park, hiked almost all of the trails, and went through Indian Tunnel three times (the kids really enjoyed it!) in our short visit. Overall I’d say two days is a good amount of time to plan to see this park. In our two days the kids also got their junior ranger badges and watched the informative video in the visitors center.
We stayed at Lava Flow Campground, located right in the park. It is a first-come campground so best to get their early and with plenty of patience in tow. Of the 42 campsites, we noted only six or so that would fit a rig as long as ours (33’). The rest are all suitable for car camping or sprinter vans, and all tucked in the lava and offering a truly unique experience. The turns can be tight and if you’re big be careful of the lava rocks that are close to the road. At only $8/night and with most sites turning over every day or two, it’s worth a try. Loop road inside the park is only 7 miles and staying so close allowed us to pop back for lunch or dinner and go back out to explore again.
Craters of the Moon offers a truly unique experience. It’s a little out of the way, but if you are visiting Yellowstone or Glacier National Parks it’s definitely worth a side trip!